Shifting Gears — From Product Management to Teaching

The year 2018 was a time of career changes for me. My last corporate assignment, as a Product Line Manager for the Converged Communications Division of Dialogic ended in early January.  The division was divested to another company, Sangoma, and all of the roughly eight product lines I managed were part of the deal, but my time was up.

I’d had a productive three year run in my return to the company, so I decided this presented an opportunity for me to re-assess how I wanted to spend my time. I considered various possibilities, but one of the most attractive directions was to explore the potential to get involved in university teaching. Teaching or training has often been part of my work in product management and consulting, but I liked the idea of being on a college campus and bringing my business experience into the classroom. Several of my business colleagues had previously made the move from business into academia, so I began  reaching out to them as part of my networking process.

It turns out that having a master’s degree is one of the requirements to be considered for some adjunct teaching roles, so my Master of Engineering in Management Engineering from Rensselaer (RPI) covered that prerequisite. The Boston area has a rich selection of diverse universities and Northeastern University in particular has a strong business program. But it quickly became clear through my networking meetings that if I wanted to seriously pursue a teaching role, I needed to target a particular semester and make sure I’d be available to teach for several months as a time.  My early contacts were promising, so I decided to go for it.

I continued job hunting, but also looked hard for potential consulting assignments that would give me more time flexibility in the event a teaching assignment opened up. I was open to a lot of options and got a tentative offer from Northeastern to teach an Introduction to Business course around March. The details firmed up a couple of months later.

In parallel, I started doing some consulting, so I was busy with that work and had a teaching assignment which would start just after Labor Day. In preparation, I continued my networking, but now with a specific focus. I had several informal discussions with colleagues who had moved into academia and they were virtually all willing to share takeaways from their experiences in the classroom. This was all helpful and I felt good about the upcoming change.  One big change from my other teaching work was the extent to which the current teaching tools are online and highly integrated.  I took a course in Blackboard, which is the teaching platform used at Northeastern, but had to come up to speed very fast in its practical use for this particular class. My years of IT experience helped, but there were many fine details which weren’t always obvious.

Intro to Business at Northeastern is somewhat unusual in various respects. I became part of a faculty teaching team which teaches the class to several hundred incoming freshmen at the D’Amore McKim School of Business.  A standard syllabus had been prepared, but it was up to each individual teacher to deliver the material in an effective manner. We met as a team before the semester began and typically met every two weeks after that. Our class sizes were relatively small — my fall semester sections had fewer than 15 students.

Classes began on the Wednesday after Labor Day.  From this point forward, I taught the students three days a week in the classroom, but quickly found I needed to spend much more time outside of the classroom to prepare. As teachers, our goal was to provide students with a foundation in the basic elements of business — addressing topics such as entrepreneurship, marketing and accounting / finance — while simultaneously helping them form teams which would apply the concepts in a variety of assignments. The early workload was substantial, but the students quickly had chances to develop new skills in areas such as conducting research surveys and learning about finance using Bloomberg terminals. As teachers, a key challenge was to engage with the students on various aspects of business through readings of a textbook, numerous articles and other tools such as videos, and encourage the students to use critical thinking in applying the material. The teaching was less about lecture than alternative means; as a professor, I facilitated in-class discussions and encouraged the teams to work together to  reach conclusions.

Here are a few takeaways from my first semester on campus:

  1. Teaching a class for the first time is a lot of work. I’d seen this before in my earlier teaching experiences, but it was particularly true for this class. Most of the effort was outside the classroom and included preparation, review and grading of assignments and meeting with students. It felt like I learned a lot over the course of the semester and this will help me to be more efficient and effective in teaching future classes.
  2. I found this particular class drew upon a wide range of my business experiences and skills.  For example, the review of supply chain and operations tied well into my original degree studies in Management Engineering at RPI and experiences from the three years when I managed purchasing and materials management for Burroughs and Fujitsu.
  3. Managing the class relied heavily upon online technology, notably on the learning automation tool known as Blackboard. Blackboard is a bit quirky, so the integration between 3rd party software and Blackboard is brittle and held a few surprises. My many years of IT experience helped here.
  4. In business, the focus is on meeting customer needs. When teaching university classes, meeting the needs of students is the central focus. One key goal was to bring my business experiences to the classroom, but the nuances of teaching a broad set of concepts required a great deal of focus.  Since this class included several team-based projects, I spent a lot of time coaching the teams on how to successfully complete their assigned presentations and projects. The improvements the students made in areas such as making presentations and preparing business plans demonstrated how they were able to take the concepts of the class and apply them to entrepreneurial projects.
  5. My business focus has been heavily in the business-to-business (B2B) arena, but most of the examples used in this class were business-to-consumer (B2C), since the major projects were tied to the consumer retailing giant TJX (the owner of stores which include Marshalls, TJ Maxx and Homegoods).  I enjoyed applying my marketing background in this somewhat different business context.

In summary, the transition from conducting business to teaching business has proven to be a career change which has many challenging elements.  I enjoy the work, especially when the students progress in learning many new skills over the course of a semester.  I also liked the university environment; Northeastern treats part-time faculty and staff as professionals and I’ve enjoyed my interactions with other professors and the support staff team. So this career change has been a positive one for me and might also work for other business professionals who’d like to apply their career skills in a university environment.

Have you considered a career change which leverages your experiences in a different way?  If you’ve had similar experiences in re-imagining your career or are contemplating such a move, I’d love to hear from you on LinkedIn.

More Business Disruption: Telecom’s Move to IP

In the late Nineties, the Telecom business was dominated by big companies who had built their phone network over many years using switching technology. But a massive storm was on the horizon as the same IP technology which helped revolutionize commerce on the world wide web started to be applied to phone-based voice communications. Early attempts at Voice over IP were primarily targeted to the long distance market. International long distance calling was expensive, so a number of startups began to bypass the traditional long distance network with a much lower cost IP network. The quality wasn’t great, but the price per call over international routes dropped dramatically and IP infrastructure and solutions gathered momentum.

The early leader in IP protocols for voice was the H.323 protocol developed within the traditional standards group for phone networks, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). But competitive protocol models were also on the rise. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) developed a new IP communications protocol, the Session Identification Protocol (SIP) and both the IETF and ITU worked on a softswitch protocol called Megaco (later standardized by the ITU as H.248).

Around 2001, two important organizations endorsed SIP and the train which would ultimately displace much of the traditional switched phone network was set in motion. Microsoft had been an early user of H.323 and had added it to their instant messaging client support and included multi-point data sharing using T series protocols from the ITU. But Microsoft decided their future communications would be SIP-based and quickly phased out use of H.323. Then, the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a standards group which had specified the very popular second generation wireless protocol GSM, said that they would be using SIP to build their next generation network and shift both data and voice services over to IP.

But first, the core SIP protocol needed to be finished. IETF participants likely spent millions of manhours and devised an updated version of SIP which got standardized in June, 2002 as RFC 3261, along with 4 other RFCs for related methods and operations. But this was just the beginning. In the time since, the IETF has produced at least 100 SIP-related documents which are either standards track or informational to guide SIP developers.

On the business side, it took quite a while, but the current public phone networks have largely cut over to IP, although there are still elements of the switched network in place.  In the world of mobile communications, the fourth generation network specified by 3GPP was the first to use SIP in its core. The related Long Term Evolution (LTE) network has been deployed throughout the world, although the voice portion of the network (Voice over LTE) has lagged behind. The move to LTE and SIP has required a massive investment in new capital equipment and software by mobile service providers and most of that deployment dates from about 2012. On the business side the industry has experienced lots of turmoil during the period between 2001 and 2012.  One of the biggest equipment vendors, Nortel, declared Chapter 11 and chunks were sold off to other companies before the company went out of business. Many of the remaining vendors have gone through multiple mergers and acquisitions, greatly reducing both the number of telecom related companies and the number of employees.

The other major SIP endorser from 2001, Microsoft, has shifted its IP voice communications strategy numerous times, but one of it’s flagship offerings,  Skype for Business, is predominately based on SIP.  Microsoft’s use of SIP is primarily within enterprises, though they have also been a strong advocate of SIP Trunking, which enables enterprises to connect to the service provider IP phone network. In the meantime, Microsoft has many competitors in the enterprise voice and communications space, but SIP remains a dominant technology. Vestiges of circuit-based phone systems remain, but all of the major players have long since switched their current product and service offers to be IP-based.

IP and SIP are doing well, but voice is now a much smaller portion of the communications business and service providers make much of their money from data services. The era of premise-based equipment is also winding down, as the shift to IP has enabled companies to move both service provider and enterprise applications to the massive conglomeration of servers known as The Cloud. I’ll be writing more in future posts about lessons learned from the Telecom move to IP and on how the move to the Cloud is also causing major business disruptions.

If you or your company participated in the Telecom move to IP, feel free to weigh in with comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other products and services to in the face of rapid business and technical change, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

 

Business Disruption in Document Communications – What Happened?

In the late 1990s, the Internet and the World Wide Web created massive technical disruption for the worlds of document communications and messaging. Now, nearly twenty years later, business communications looks much different than it did going into the Millennium and once major businesses such as the marketing of enterprise fax machines are deep into their long tail phase. In my last post, I noted several trends in both fax and email as the related standards communities pushed to transform these technologies for the new IP world. Let’s look at what happened.

One major driver of the success of fax in the Nineties was the classic network effect as postulated by Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe. In essence, Metcalfe had stated that a network became much more compelling as the number of connected devices increased.  In the Nineties, the fax machine vendors and computer fax companies were often on opposing sides in technical battles, but all of these companies benefited from Metcalfe’s network effect as it applied to the overall fax network. But as we crossed into the 21st century, fax machines designed to run on the circuit-switched phone network (aka the Public Switched Telephone Network or PSTN) had much less utility in an increasingly IP network connected world. As a result, physical fax machines began to disappear from larger enterprise offices and in smaller offices, they were often replaced by less expensive multi-function peripherals (MFPs), which were basically printers that also included fax and scanning features. This meant that the number of Group 3 fax devices in total at first plateaued and then began a decline. In essence, Metcalfe’s network effect played out in reverse. The fax machines and MFPs of the Nineties did not evolve to use the new IP fax standards, so as document communications moved to IP, these physical fax or MFP devices still only sent faxes over the PSTN and were less connected as IP communications became more prevalent.

If we consider the trends in computer-based fax, they played out differently. Companies like Brooktrout sold fax boards to independent software developers and the boards were incorporated in local area network solutions. These solutions also typically included tight integration with email.  By 2004, Fax over IP enabling technology started to be commercialized, using the ITU-T T.38 IP fax standards. T.38 had some technical issues, but it could use the same call control protocols — SIP, H.323 and H.248 — that were being adopted by the new Voice over IP networks, so T.38 became a popular choice for conveying fax over these VoIP networks. By contrast, the T.37 approach of Internet Fax over Email did not get much adoption, most likely because it didn’t mesh very well with Voice over IP.  The computer-based fax solutions that ran on Local Area Networks continued to have healthy growth in the first decade of the 2000s in large part due to the continued validity of fax as a legal document, perceived security compared to use of email over the Internet, a slow rampup in the use of digital signatures on other electronic documents and regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) which meshed well with receiving fax documents in electronic form (rather than on a paper tray).

During the same period, email use continued to grow, but rising issues such as lack of security and massive amounts of spam made the use of email outside of corporate subject to a number of hassles. As noted above, electronic signatures started to become available as a legal alternative to fax signatures, but didn’t gain widespread use until the past few years. As a result, enterprises tended to standardize on a particular commercial email package and communicate whenever possible over secured private IP networks and by making use of security tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

Now, in 2018, the messaging world is highly fragmented. Large enterprises have tended to choose unified communications eco-systems from large players like Microsoft, Cisco and Avaya, but even these solutions are rapidly evolving as the momentum is shifting toward pushing enterprise communications into the Cloud.  Hence, Microsoft is shifting its emphasis from Lync to Skype for Business and now onto Teams and other vendors such as Cisco are doing much the same.  Upstarts such as Slack have started by offering cloud-based team communications and have forced reactions from the traditional Unified Communications players.  As messaging has evolved, voice is now becoming less important and fax is now more of a niche play.  One thing I don’t see too much of is the use of business communications that can effectively cross the boundaries between organizations. In theory, Cloud-based communications could get us there, but the vision of the late Nineties of being able to communicate documents and other types of media effectively across the entire Internet has been hobbled by security, privacy and spam issues. We’ll have to see if the Cloud and better cross-network security mechanisms could form the foundation for approaches that will be superior to today’s highly balkanized communications landscape.

If you or your company have participated in the massive changes to the communications eco-system since the 1990s, feel free to weigh in with comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products and services to better address the rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

A Tale of Business Disruption in Document Communications

In the middle of the 1990s, the Internet and its associated IP protocols were like a huge wave that was off the shore of the business world, but poised to come in and cause massive disruption. At that time, I ran a consulting business for telecom clients (Human Communications) and was active on several fronts to be proactive on the topic.  In the TR-29 fax standards committee, we started work on how fax communications could take place over the Internet. A small group began work on an initiative called Group 5 Messaging, whose goal was to take the best ideas of fax, email and telex and spin up the next generation of business communications. In late 1996, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) held an informal Birds of a Feather (BOF) on Internet Fax.  In meetings of Study Group 8 of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), discussions began on how to extend fax protocols to work over the Internet or on private IP networks.

On the business side, fax was very hot and even very small businesses such as pizza parlors had purchased fax machines. Corporations had been adopting fax over Local Area Networks, and companies like Rightfax, Omtool, Optus and Biscom had  very healthy businesses selling into this space. Brooktrout Technology had introduced multi-channel fax boards and drivers for Windows NT, and had built up market momentum that enabled the company to go public. But all of this fax technology was based on sending faxes over circuit-switched networks. What would be the impact of the Internet and its technology on fax and business communications?

By 1999, the business communications landscape had changed dramatically. On the standards front, the IETF had created several standards for providing a fax services via email and the ITU had referenced these standards in the T.37 standard. The ITU had also independently created a new T.38 standard which essentially extended the T.30 Group 3 fax protocol into the IP packet world. The Group 5 initiative had lost momentum, as the fax and other communications players lined up to support the new IP-based standards from the IETF and ITU which appeared to solve the problem of how to send faxes over IP.  Related standards work continued and I was active in making sure that the new T.38 fax protocol was supported under both the current H.323 call control and under the new SIP and Megaco (later H.248) protocols.

On the business side, fax was still doing well, but now had new competition. The advent of the World Wide Web had totally wiped out the Fax on Demand business that had done well in the early Nineties. Various pundits were saying that email was the future of business communications and that new portable document formats like the PDF from Adobe would be used in place of fax.  Curiously, the email experts who participated in the IETF Internet Fax work weren’t so sure. Fax had business quality of service elements which were hard to duplicate in email — notably instant confirmation of delivery at the end of a session, negotiations between the endpoints on what document formats were acceptable and the legal status of fax, where fax messages over the circuit network were accepted as legal documents for business purposes.  The IETF work group tried to upgrade email protocols to address the technical elements, but the work was hard and the path to adoption slow.

I also shifted my career and suspended my consulting business to join Brooktrout Technology and help them participate in the new Voice over IP business. But just before I left my business, I advised my fax clients and newsletter subscribers to get diversified and not put all of their eggs in the fax communications basket.  I saw both challenges and opportunities ahead. There had been a large number of new startups that had attempted to ride IP fax to success in the late Nineties, but most of them crashed and burned within a couple of years. E-Fax had introduced “free” IP fax mailboxes and that approach was quickly emulated by competitors, but the business model for “free” wasn’t obvious.  I’d helped form a new industry association called the Internet Fax and Business Communications Association in early 1999, but we had difficulty getting fax and other communications industry vendors to sign on. The times were turbulent and the way forward was less than obvious.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how the trends toward IP Fax and its communications competitors played out and which related business communications issues still need to be addressed.

If your organization has participated in the evolution of fax or other business communications during this evolution from the circuit-switched phone network to IP, please feel free to comment. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products and services in this rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

Virtual Software: Changing Business Models

One of the best texts I’ve ever read about business models was written by Cory Doctorow, a famous writer and entrepreneur. His novel Makers was not only a great story, but virtually a doctoral thesis on how business models can change and have a radical impact on everything they touch.

A couple years ago, I helped launch a new virtualized software product line for Dialogic. The PowerVille™ Load Balancer was different in many ways from other products I’d managed. The software was totally agnostic to the underlying hardware, courtesy of a Java code base which was highly portable to multiple topologies. As a result, it fit nicely into a variety of virtual environments and also was poised to make the leap into emerging Cloud architectures, in line with trends like the emerging Virtualized Network Function (VNF) and approaches like the use of HEAT templates for configuration.

A few months into the launch, my manager and I talked about how to take this product to the next level and realized that we needed different business models for this kind of product. The traditional load balancer provided by industry leaders such as F5 was built on top of proprietary hardware platforms, and the business model followed suit. Pricing was typically based on a purchase, where all of the hardware (and software) was purchased upfront, accompanied by a service agreement which was renewed year by year.  This approach is often called the perpetual model.

But with the Cloud taking over, customers were looking for different answers. Cloud Services such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and lots of industry software had moved to subscription or usage based business models. For example, if you buy a subscription to to a software product like Adobe Acrobat, you get the right to use the product so long as you keep paying the monthly subscription fees. Amazon went further. You can buy rights to AWS services and only pay for the usage of the Cloud infrastructure you have purchased. In the world of virtual services, this permits customers to scale up for high usage events—think of the capacity need to support online voting via text for a television program like American Idol—and then scale back down as needed, perhaps even to zero.

We considered these kinds of changes for the Dialogic load balancer, but other virtual software products at the company ended up taking the lead in becoming available under subscription or usage based models. The implications were huge. Salesreps loved the perpetual model, since they’d get a big chunk of commissions every time they sold a big box.  In a subscription or usage based model, the revenue—and the commissions—move to a “pay as you go” model. Hence, no big upfront commissions payout and you need to keep the customer happy to get that recurring revenue stream. By contrast, finance executives now had a revenue stream which was less bumpy, since there was somewhat less incentive for Sales to go out and close those end of quarter deals. Customers also like the flexibility of subscription models. Typically, they may pay more over the long haul vs. the perpetual model, but they also have the option to change to a new product or service mid-stream. In summary, the move to virtual software and related technical innovations such as Software as a Service (SaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) or by extension Anything as a Service is likely to drag in new business models.  These new business models change the finances both on the customer and vendor side and not everybody will be pleased with the results, but momentum for these trends continues to grow.

If your organization has participated in the evolution from perpetual to subscription or usage based business models, please  weigh in with your comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products in this rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.